On a sun-drenched street in Southern California, Superman stands waiting for the cross light. Next to him, anime stalwart Yugi shakes his spiked yellow hair and smiles.
"The Lycra's a bitch in this weather, huh?" Yugi says to Superman.
"Yes it is, son," Supes replies, with all the gravitas of a 70-year-old living icon and a polite nod of his blue-black forelock.
Across the street, a banner emblazoned with an all-seeing comic book-style eye ripples. Streams of Yugis, Supermen, Princess Leias, Klingons, fanboys, fangirls, writers, artists, lovers, dreamers and true believers head towards it. The 2012 San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) has begun.
Joss Whedon - official king of all geeks and director of the biggest grossing superhero film of all time, The Avengers, once described attending SDCC for a geek as being like "finding your country".
But, in the past 10 years, SDCC, which first opened its doors to just 300 comic book traders in 1970, has become more than just Geekville-On-Sea.
The 130,000-attendee, five-day convention is the font from which all popular culture springs. If it didn't start - in book, cinema or televisual form - at Comic-Con, it didn't start.
"It's like Mecca. Everyone should see it at least once," an official says to me as she hands me my badge, the SDCC equivalent of a ticket.
"This is my 12th year. I don't know why, I just keep coming back."
At the heart of the 182,000-square- metre SDCC exhibition hall, the major studios have their stages and signing booths, the largest of which is for Marvel Studios' upcoming Iron Man 3 - a high, semi-circular stage with the Iron Man suits on display. The scrum to have your picture taken with them is not for the faint- hearted or blunt-elbowed.
Across the hall from Marvel are three massive cave trolls, mid stomp - the gruesome and gnarled centrepiece of our own Weta's sprawling exhibit. There's a line to have photos taken under the largest troll's upraised foot.
During the course of the convention, more than 50,000 attendees will visit the Weta stand, many of them buying exclusive Weta items for their collections, all of them coming away with the sense that they got something unique from the experience.
Behind the trolls, Weta Workshop head Sir Richard Taylor is signing books. He thanks one fan for giving him the opportunity to come to Comic-Con by supporting the films. From the look on her starstruck face, he has just made her convention.
"There's no real difference between the fans and the people who work on the movies," says Weta designer Daniel Falconer. "We're all really passionate. It's just that some of us get to work on the films and some of us enjoy them as fans, but really we're all the same."
Perhaps that's what keeps the officials and fans coming back to SDCC in greater numbers every year: unique fan experiences and being part of the action, just for five days.
It wasn't always that way. On March 17, 1970, a few Michigan and San Diego comic book collectors got together to share their love of all things comics related. The Golden State Comic Book Convention was born, with just 145 attendees. Later that year, a second convention had 300.
By 2004, there were 95,000 convention badges on sale. Comic-Con had spilled into the now-legendary Hall H and it took six months for the badges to sell out.
This year, organisers increased the number of tickets to 130,000. They sold out in 2 hours.
"It's big business," says comic book artist and writer Rufus Dayglo, who grew up in Wellington and is attending SDCC as a professional for the second time.
Rufus says something changed when Hollywood realised there was money to be made down the road in San Diego and started to send fanboy honey- traps in the form of its biggest stars to grab it.
But despite the Hollywood invasion, it's an important place for artists like him.
"It's the one convention all the professionals from all over the world will come to, whether they want to or not, because it's the one chance for us to all be together in the one place. It's a very special thing.
"I like small shows where you can talk to people on a one-to-one basis. San Diego is the complete antithesis of that. It's huge, just so enormous, and it can be quite overwhelming."
Rufus is no stranger to shows. Based in London, he attends between 10 and 40 a year all around the world, but the European shows, he says, are where it's at. "You're very much treated as an artist, as opposed to someone who sells comic books . . . It's more a personal experience."
Rufus says the Hollywood marketing engines have taken the heart out of the convention. "The comics of Comic-Con have been pushed to the periphery."
Many artists I speak to at the convention agree: commerce rules the booths at SDCC.
But they seem to embrace the model, charging anything from US$20 (NZ$25) to US$250 for a sketch and sometimes thousands for pages of original comic art that have been published. Most die-hard comic book fans will tell you those prices are well worth it. I paid US$300 for a pencil sketch of Super Friends by Ramona Fradon, an artist whose work drew me to comics in the first place.
But not as many of those fans seem to come to SDCC any more.
I visit Artists' Alley every day of the Con and see a line form for only one artist - Superman master, Mark Waid. Graphic geniuses such as Fradon, Robin and Captain Atom artist Freddie Williams II and Spider-Man artist Mike McKone, and even 70s legends like Neal Adams, the artist behind Superman vs Muhammad Ali, are quiet most of the week.
Rufus sees it as a symptom of the "American money model" and not the work or the stories.
"The guy who invented the Joker, until he died last year, was always down in Artists' Alley on his own. He was an 80-year-old man and he had to go and buy his own coffee, and yet there was this huge thing up for the Batman movie, with the Joker in it, at the DC booth.
"But they didn't pay for him to come, they didn't look after him. They didn't even invite him to dinner.
"If you work on those franchises, you're part of a machine. It can be a very, very fun machine, and a lot of fans really love it, but it is a machine."
Writer Jay, here to find a publisher and artist for his comic book, has a more philosophical approach to the commercialisation of SDCC.
"It's is almost a pagan religious celebration of these deities [comic characters]. They're very powerful icons and we respond to that, and the industry tries to exploit that for all it's worth."
Meeting the deities, or just being in their presence, is definitely part of the lure for Xavier, Nessa and their 10-year- old son, Miko, who I meet in the line for Ballroom 20, where there will be seven panels on television shows that day.
For the past five years, the family has got up at 3am every day of the Comic- Con and driven an hour and a half from their home in Riverside to see their favourite television and movie stars.
"I have so many TV shows and movies that I look forward to seeing," says Nessa, who does not fit the geeky stereotype - she isn't awkward or socially difficult, and there's not a pocket protector in sight - although she is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about her fandoms.
Nessa, Xavier explains, used to blog about Superman-based television show Smallville, which was cancelled last year after 10 years.
"That show was one of the main reasons we came to Comic-Con in the first place," says Nessa.
Today, the family has been in line since 5am. The panel they want to see, the Firefly 10-year reunion, includes Joss Whedon himself and they are desperate to get in. The line is long, snaking all the way down to the marina behind the centre, and it's not looking good for them.
"We should have known better," Xavier says. They plan to arrive at 3am the next day.
The panel turns out to be the defining one of the convention - an emotional connection between the creators, actors and fans.
Writer and director of the show Whedon is speechless with tears at one point. There's a tangible outpouring of love going both ways.
More than 4000 people "turned up to see a show that went off the air 10 years ago, you guys are amazing", star Nathan Fillion says to hysterical screaming as he wipes his eyes.
Next to me, a girl dressed as Kayley, the teenage mechanical genius of the show, sobs.
I'm left shaken by the event. It had all the hallmarks of a hysterical televangelical show, only for good and not cash.
I find it hard to reconcile all the love in Ballroom 20, the second-largest hall at SDCC, with the complaints of gross commercialism from the comics side.
But it's this kind of passion for a show that the studios come to generate. Some, such as Game Of Thrones, give away gift packs to fans who survive the lines and get into the panels. Others put on "experiences", such as the Walking Dead zombie obstacle course at Petco Park Stadium where, for about US$80, you can play a survivor or a zombie, expertly made up by SFX legend Greg Nicotero's KNB EFX make-up team.
It's a blurring of the line between the fantasy of the show and the fans. That line is flimsiest when it comes to cosplay - fans who express their fannish adoration by creating replica costumes of their favourite characters, such as Superman and Yugi, or SDCC classics such as Klingons from Star Trek and Stormtroopers from Star Wars.
I wonder if that blurring of reality and fantasy is the main appeal of cosplaying.
"Absolutely," says Eric, a semi- professional cosplayer whose exquisite Penguin costume - Batman's avian arch- nemesis - has fans stopping him for a picture every few waddling steps.
"I do it because he's a fun character," he says, taking a puff on his oversized cigarette holder. "I'm a little rounder, and he's a character I can play close to type."
Eric, a self confessed "attention whore", comes to SDCC every year because he says this is the place to see and be seen if you love cosplaying.
"It's the geek Mardi Gras."
Being seen, photographed and appreciated is a big part of the cosplaying and the SDCC experience.
I make the mistake of getting stuck behind a blood-drenched ghoul woman in a nude suit. Predictably, she is stopped by hordes of fanboys every few metres for photographs and it takes me half an hour to get one block up Fifth Ave.
Back in the convention centre, a statuesque Power Girl in a keyhole suit with a prodigious chest beneath it is surrounded by a three-deep ring of salivating men. She strikes a pose and 20 cameras flash.
Between the "feminist pin-up" Suicide Girls, Power Girls, and naked ghoul women there's enough lady flesh on display to make the average woman feel a little inadequate.
But no-one at SDCC would say pop- culture is a lads' game.
There's an even split of men and women attending the convention, and several high-profile women creators at the big publisher's panels too.
Creator, publisher and artist Becky Cloonan is a featured guest speaker, while DC Comics highlight writer Gail Simone and artist Amanda Conner at their booth.
And for every half-naked "Sexy Joker", there's a female Doctor Who or Buffy in her sedate leather jacket and jeans, clutching "Mr Pointy", the show's affectionate nickname for Buffy's favourite vampire-dispatching weapon.
In the line outside Hall H - the largest hall at the Con, with more than 6500 seats and five big screens - two female fans are setting up camp beds.
"It's 9.30 now," says school teacher and super-fan Laura, who is at the front of the line to get into the next day's Warner Brothers and Marvel Studios panels.
"By the time they open the doors [at 9.30am], we'll have been waiting for 12 hours. I'd probably wait longer," she says with a shrug.
These are the kinds of fans the studios court.
Audience response here almost guarantees a hit when the film is released, a studio executive tells me, and panel moderators repeatedly tell the audience to talk online about the exclusive footage they're shown.
During the audience questions for Man of Steel with director Zach Snyder and its British star Henry Cavill, a fan comes to the microphone in his Superman hoodie, Superman shirt and Superman hat, sobbing right from the bottom of his guts.
"I'm just so emotional right now," he stammers into the microphone. "Zach and Henry, you guys rock."
Hall H then gets the exclusive 12 minutes of The Hobbit, introduced by Sir Peter Jackson, who has flown in especially for this panel. The footage is incredible, and he rightly gets a hysterical standing ovation that is not rivalled that day, not even when Robert Downey Jr dances in to the Marvel panel after it.
Back on the exhibition hall floor, Rufus is sketching and signing for a long line of fans that curves right around the IDW booth.
The Tank Girl, Judge Dredd and Solid Gold Death Mask artist may complain about the commercialism, but at heart Rufus is just as much of a fanboy as anyone else here.
"I was at a comic convention last week with a comic-book writer called John Wagner, who was a writer of Judge Dredd. I used to write to him when I was a kid saying, 'When I'm older, I'm going to work with you'. And he very kindly wrote back to me saying, 'I'll look forward to that'. And to me this was: 'Oh my God, he acknowledged I'm alive!'
"I've been very lucky in that I got to draw a Judge Dredd story written by him and when I was at Glasgow Con last week, we were at dinner and he sort of leaned over to me and said, 'I saw your new work and I really like what you're doing'.
"To me it was sort of like God descending from the heavens and handing me the stone tablets. This is the cool side of conventions."
Fanboys and fangirls are still the heart of SDCC. They may be less strokey- beard collectors, but they still collect something: experiences.
"I was in this lift and I turn around . . . Joss Whedon!" one fanboy tells me when I ask who he's seen this weekend.
"Robert Downey Jr danced past me, like, this far away," says Chad, who travelled from Ohio for the convention.
"I got the last ticket going for the Stan Lee signing," says Rebecca, from Minneapolis.
"The last one. I can't believe it."
I'm not immune myself. On day two I have a mild panic about being the only person ever to attend SDCC and not even see Stan Lee, the great and mighty Oz of this entire enterprise.
I get wind of a Lee sighting by the Iron Man stage and hoof it as quickly as the huge crowds will let me go.
Lee is on stage, pressing flesh with fans and stars of the television show Supernatural.
I manage to get one or two pictures of the great man himself, and the relief I feel is like a dose of Dorothy's poppies.
Publisher Matais Timarchi, of Ovni Press, says it's this fannish love for the stars that will assure the future of comics.
"It causes new people and new readers to approach comic books."
He says the best example is The Walking Dead.
Originally published in 2004, it was a cult hit that took SDCC by storm.
"[Fans] began to spread the word and it began to be more famous. It was sold all over the world and that caught the attention and the TV studios, and now, there is even a car. Hyundai is making a Walking Dead car."
He says the popularity of the television show has kept the book alive and increased its sales beyond its cult roots.
"Of course, there is a good story, there is a good artist, but the fans made this mutation from the niche to the big audiences.
"I think Hollywood is trying to harness that with everything they have, and comics do OK too."
In the middle of the exhibition hall, Robert Downey Jr makes a sneaky surprise appearance as the judge in a children's Iron Man costume competition. You can hear the excited screams all the way down in Artists' Alley, where Freddie Williams II, my favourite comic book artist, is drawing me a picture of Superman, my favourite superhero.
"Is that OK?" he asks me as he hands me the beautiful sketch and I check another lifetime experience off my list.
The fangirl in me sobs from the bottom of her guts.
"Freddie," I say happily, "you rock."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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